Fans cleaning the stadium after matches they attend is an example of how one must be conscious of the convenience of those around.
Many years ago an anti-speeding slogan at the side of a highway in Japan said, “Japan is a small country. Where are you headed in such a hurry?”
The point was that in a small country, there is no need to speed because it does not take all that long to get to your destination even when obeying the speed limit.
Followers of the World Cup games have been surprised, amused, embarrassed and, perhaps, edified to see scenes broadcast worldwide of Japanese fans cleaning the stadium after matches they attend.
One journalist described it as “shocking” in a positive sense. So far, the Japanese fans have done this twice, the second time joined by fans from Senegal whose team had just tied with the Japanese.
In a roundabout way, these cleanups are linked to Japan’s small size.
The country has in some ways declined since its heady high point a few decades ago when pundits predicted “Japan as Number One” and it is likely to continue a slow decline as its population ages and shrinks, and other countries, most notably China, overtake it as an economic, political and military power.
Even so, the country remains and likely will remain one of the world’s leading economic powers.
That power makes it easy to overlook two major determinants of Japanese culture: poverty and crowding.
It is easy to forget, or never know, that Japan has been a very poor place for most of its history. It has few natural resources. It is a mountainous island country where flat land suitable for farming is scarce.
It is prone to earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis, volcanoes, famine and other disasters that have always made life precarious, even today when technology mitigates some of their effects.
More than 18,000 people were killed less than a decade ago when a massive earthquake-caused tsunami roared ashore in northern Japan.
Much of the simplicity of Japanese architecture and life that is admired abroad is a fruit of poverty.
The origins of slight seasoning in Japanese cuisine, eating raw fish and vegetables, communal bathing and such probably have more to do with a shortage of ingredients and firewood than to gastronomy or aesthetics.
Then, there is overcrowding. As the traffic sign said, Japan is a small country, made even smaller by the fact that as much as 85 percent of it is uninhabitable mountains.
So, people are forced together in crowded towns and cities. The Tokyo metropolitan area, with some 38 million residents, is the world’s largest. Even as early as the 18th century the city, then called Edo, was one of the world’s largest, if not the largest city.
The hardscrabble life that poverty and crowding required could have led to a culture of necessary selfishness, and other cultures that have faced the same challenges have in fact turned to blocking out the demands of others except family or some other group as a means of organizing for survival.
As a Christian, I cannot help but think that somehow the Holy Spirit played some role in Japanese culture’s development along a totally different way.
In Japanese culture, possibly the most excoriated sin is meiwaku, causing annoyance or inconvenience to another.
In order to avoid causing meiwaku, one must be conscious at all times of the presence, needs and convenience of those around one. It is a way to maintain harmony in society in situations where there are many competing needs and interests.
In the last century in Korea, China and the Pacific Japanese desperation for industrial and agricultural resources tragically led to the country being itself a world-class meiwaku, an experience that ultimately confirmed a commitment to peaceful coexistence.
An example of how deeply ingrained is the necessity to avoid meiwaku is Japan’s anti-smoking advertizing campaign. Such campaigns in other countries focus on the damage that tobacco causes to smokers’ health.
In Japan, however, the ads stress second-hand smoke, the stench of cigarettes in the noses of non-smokers, cigarette butts as litter, etc. The ads work: smoking is declining.
(Another factor in the decline is probably the fact that young people who might otherwise take up smoking are burning up their money and occupying their hands with portable electronic devices.)
Litter, is, of course, a meiwaku. And so, it was second nature for Japanese fans to remove it from the stadium after the games.
It is unclear whether the Senegalese fans who joined the Japanese in their cleanup were following some cultural value of their own or were inspired to imitate the Japanese. In either case, they deserve credit and emulation.
In a world of increasing hyper-urbanization, every society must learn how to cope with the challenges of too many people crammed into too little space. The Japanese solution to the conundrum might offer a model for how to maintain harmony, mutual respect and even cleanliness.
This article was published by La Croix International on the 28th of June 2018. Father William Grimm, MM, is publisher of ucanews.com and is based in Tokyo.